This article will focus on MLS draft fantasy strategy. It will cover drafting best practices, lineup selection, in-game tactics, and advanced planning. For strategy specific to the official MLS Fantasy game, please see the Ultimate Guide to MLS Fantasy Strategy.
About the Author
Jeff M. Jones (aka Field Projections) is one of the most successful MLS fantasy managers. He won the overall MLS fantasy league in 2021, 2nd place in 2020, as well as four other top 10 finishes. In addition, he has won several competitive MLS fantasy draft leagues over the years.
Obviously drafting a good team is incredibly important to the fate of any fantasy team. Selecting great players will not guarantee that will win your league, but it can give you a good start. However, if you draft poorly you almost have not shot of winning. Having a pre-prepared draft list of players is key, since you could easily overlook good players if you are drafting ad-hoc. Unlike NFL fantasy football, there is not an ordered list of players compiled by experts or average draft position data that you can cheat off of. That is what makes drafting MLS especially fun.
Pre-draft research list
- New players
- New coaches
- New team formations
- Players changing positions
- Players changing teams
- Changes to set piece duties
- Injuries / Suspensions
- Transfer rumors
- National Team duties
- Player age
- Previous season’s average
- Odd quirks in the schedule
- Scout preseason games
It is important to have a personal list of 100 players to draft. You should not only have an ordered list, but you should try to make a prediction about how many points you expect each player to get over the season on average. This can be done by basing it on the player’s previous seasons and also looking at the point average a player of similar talent in the same position typically gets. If the average points per game you expect players to get is similar, you should prioritize forwards, then midfielders. Defenders and goalkeepers are the lowest priority because these positions are less scarce. If you are prioritizing making the playoffs, you might take note of any players that have an especially good schedule when the playoffs will be played.
This is not an area of the draft where you should take a lot of risks. The ideal first pick is someone like Carlos Vela. A forward that is taking all set pieces. They not only have a high floor but also a high upside. A midfielder that takes set pieces or a top performing forward (6.0+ ppg) would be the next player types to draft in this range. Do not draft defenders in the top 4 picks, unless they are on set pieces, like Kai Wagner.
In this range, I would target new players that are likely to be on set pieces. They tend to be undervalued. Also I would target any existing players that are starting to take set pieces for their team. Also you could also take a really high preforming defensive midfielder in this range (examples from the past include Michael Bradley, Ozzie Alonso, Alex Ring). If all of these options are already picked, then you could think about taking the best defender on the board here.
After loading up on the top forwards and midfielders, this range is where to draft most of your defenders. Solid defenders are not as scarce as forwards and midfielders, since there are typically four defenders on each team that score roughly the same amount of points. A defender’s points average is highly tied to how well their defense plays. However, defenses in MLS can be pretty inconsistent from year to year, so defenders are less of a sure thing.
During the last few picks of the draft there is still a lot of value to be found. Do not get too attached to these last few picks. Feel free to add and drop players from free agent list liberally. Reserve your last picks for players in good matchups in the first few weeks of the season. You can try to trade them after they do well. This is also the range you can start to justifiably take goalkeepers.
First I would find expected points values for all my players and play the 11 players with the highest scores in a valid lineup formation. Then I would take a look at the pool of free agents and see if I could upgrade my team in a given week. Usually there are a few free agents that would be better some of your starters in a given week. You can pick them up by dumping some of your lowest performing players. There are a few guys on every roster that are not worth hanging onto each week, since their average is not that much higher than many free agents.
There tend to be very few forwards that are viable in the draft version of fantasy. Typically, forwards are only worth playing if they are at home. The drop off between elite forwards and the average forward is huge. Most average forwards are not great draft fantasy plays since they often get only 2 points.
A forward that has a high floor is difficult to find. Usually they are midfielders misclassified as forwards or forwards that take corner kicks. In most cases, I only recommend playing with 1 forward in the lineup. You are better off playing defenders and midfielders instead. Consult the expected points table to optimize your lineup.
It’s unlikely that you will have three forwards that are better than players of other positions. It is important to recognize the scoring system awards points for more than goals and assists. A forward with a goal scores only one less point than a midfielder with a clean sheet, three chances created, three crosses, and six defensive recoveries.
Midfielders are the livelihood of any team. Even if they don’t score or assist the better midfielders tend to accrue a lot of bonus points so their downside is lower than most forwards. The best midfielders usually have set piece duties. Getting a player with that takes penalty kicks and corner kicks is ideal.
While in the official fantasy game, defensive midfielders are rarely selected, in the draft game they can be viable. Getting a top defensive midfielder that gets a consistent 5.5 to 6 points per game is huge. This will allow you to play this player every week no matter the matchup. Then you can fill the other 4 midfielder positions with guys in good matchups.
There tend not to be many viable free agents that are midfielders, so it is worth keeping your best midfielders on your roster even if you might not use some of them every week.
Defenders can be very good plays in draft. High quality defenders can be picked up as free agents during the year. However if a defender is on set pieces that is huge. This is a big reason why fullbacks like Brooks Lennon and Kai Wagner have been so reliable in the last few years.
Fullbacks should almost never be played in away games. Center backs in away games have less downside because they tend to accrue more defensive bonus points.
Center backs that get a lot of passing bonus points are preferable. This is part of the reason why Sporting Kansas City center backs have been good in fantasy. Their coach prefers them to play high percentage passes. On the other end of the spectrum you have teams like the New York Red Bulls
Goalkeeper is by far the least important position in MLS draft fantasy. It is the equivalent of a kicker in NFL fantasy. Only the very best goalkeepers are not droppable for other goalkeepers with better matchups.
The difference between a good and bad goalkeeper is not large for a variety of reasons. Goalkeepers on teams with bad defenses tend to pick up more bonus points, because they are tested more. Goalkeepers on good defenses tend to get few bonus points, so they rely on getting a clean sheet for value. To be clear, goalkeepers on good defenses are better, but the difference isn’t as big as other positions.
Many times you can just keep one goalkeeper on your roster and focus on other positions. Also you can just pick up a goalkeeper with a good matchup as a free agent
If you feel you have a better team than your opponent in a given week you might play differently to lower your risk. If you see your opponent is starting 2 defenders from one team, then it would be best if you also pick up one of those team’s defenders. Conversely if you feel you don’t have much of a chance to beat an opponent, it could pay to load up on three defenders from one team in hopes of getting a clean sheet for all three.
Be aware of how close the score is between you and your opponent. If you are winning your matchup, you can also lower your risk by playing players with higher floors. Or you could transfer in a defender that is the same team as your opponent to negate a clean sheet.
Your substitute player should be one of the first players that plays that is not in your starting lineup. You do not want to end up in a situation where one of your starters is unexpectedly not playing or benched. I have unfortunately had to drop good players in the past due to this situation, since the matchup was close and I needed the points.
Planning in advance
You can make a list of starters a few weeks in advance to see which players you are likely to use each week. Then if you see some players are not likely to be in your lineup any of those weeks you can swap them out for rental free agents that might only be viable one week.
Furthermore, you can plan for the playoffs by seeing which free agents have favorable schedules and picking them up before the playoffs. You could also trade for players that have a good playoff schedule. Some players have double game weeks during the playoffs, while others have a difficult away week, so the difference can be large.
Another strategy is to optimize your lineup in a bid to defeat the better teams in your league. Find players that have good schedules during the weeks you will need them the most. Against the lower performing teams, you can ignore optimizing your lineup for that specific week and use it to pick up players that will be useful in more difficult matchups.
Related MLS Fantasy Articles
The Ultimate Guide to MLS Fantasy Strategy
MLS Fantasy Expected Point Projection
How Many Fantasy Points is Taking Penalty Kicks Worth on Average?
How Many Fantasy Points is Taking Corner Kicks Worth on Average?
Why defensive midfielders are the least matchup dependent MLS fantasy plays
Why picking MLS fantasy defenders against weak defenses is a fallacy